2 Feb 2020

100 not out: broadcast radio - the mass-media 'cockroach'

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 2 February 2020

Organised broadcast radio is 100 years old this year - and it's not just alive but still kicking pretty hard. Some say surviving and even outliving technological changes make it the 'cockroach' of the world's mass media.  What's the secret to survival - and its future?

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Photo: Flickr

 In 1920, a station owned by the Detroit Times newspaper broadcast concert recordings over ten days as a bit of an experiment.     

When that seemed to work, the station announced the local state and congressional primary election returns one night to local listeners. And then they went on to make a story out of the fact that they’d just broken new ground by doing that.

And why not? Broadcast radio has never looked back since then. 

Just two years later, the BBC was up and running in the UK with news that could be heard in and around London - and soon, the whole country. Governments, companies and listeners at home started investing in the gear for transmitting and receiving broadcasts all over the world. 

Since then we've seen the rise of television, satellites, the internet and streaming but radio has proved a global stayer, hailed as the 'cockroach' of the world’s digital-era media.

Last year, global business consultancy Deloitte reckoned that 85 percent of adults in the developed world listened to radio at least once a week in 2018.

Deloitte also reckoned almost three billion people worldwide listened to an average of 90 minutes of radio a day and - unlike some other media - radio would "continue to perform relatively well with people under 35" even in the competitive markets including the US.

"Driving around in a car and listening to music, news, and a loudmouth DJ is still very much part of the US cultural fabric in 2019. In a world where digital changes everything, radio may be the exception," Deloitte concluded. 

Same here too. Audience research in New Zealand shows similar appeal among adults - and there's no shortage of loudmouth DJs.  

And critically for the industry, radio remains the most profitable part of the New Zealand media scene even though it’s still transmitted and received by pre-digital analogue devices and technology. 

What’s the secret?

Matt Mollgaard, the head of AUT's Screen, Audio and Journalism department.  

Matt Mollgaard, the head of AUT's Screen, Audio and Journalism department.   Photo: Radio NZ

"It's so simple. It's fast, robust and agile. It doesn't need the huge investment TV does. But its fundamental strength is that it's such direct communication and you can hear it on just about any piece of technology these days," Dr Peter Hoar, a senior lecturer in radio at Auckland University of Technology, told Mediawatch.

"We speak. We listen. We've been telling stories for 200,000 years. That what we have evolved to do," he said. 

That first news broadcast 100 years ago was a major milestone, but radio has had plenty of others since then which  Dr Hoar ran though in a retropective for The Conversation.

He points to the foundation of the BBC in 1922 in the UK, which other countries followed.

"We set up these institutions which give us this concept of public broadcasting . . . what media is for," he said.

The BBC first boss Lord Reith claimed to know nothing about radio when he was given the job, but he was wedded to the idea it must "inform, educate and entertain."  

In 1938, CBS Radio broadcast the now notorious panic-inducing War of the Worlds drama starring Orson Welles  - an early illustration of the medium's persuasive power. 

Some of the key milestones were technological, says Dr Hoar.  

Transistors made radio portable from 1947 and FM radio transformed music from 1938 onwards, followed by radio in cars, said Dr Hoar, the author of The World’s Din, a history of early radio and music listing in New Zealand.

One of the reasons radio has endured is the countless millions (possibly billions?) of analogue receivers in the world, many of which will carry on working as long as there are signals they can pick up. 

While TV was switched over to digital here by 2015 and the analogue transmissions switched off, there's been no such effort for old-fashioned analogue radio transmission and reception.

Will it eventually vanish as audio on-demand ad online streaming services such as Spoitify and Pandora grow? 

"There's a lot of politics and business wound up in radio staying as it is. Our commercial industry here is not going to give up on FM radio anytime soon. The idea of switching is out of the bounds of reality," Dr Matt Mollgaard, AUT’s head of department for radio and audio, told Mediawatch.

"It;s not a legacy media - it keeps on getting bigger because more receivers are being made every day," he said. 

Norway was the first to switch off FM in favour of digital-only transmission in 2017, but Dr Mollgaard says some FM transmissions been switched back on again there because stations lost huge numbers of listeners. 

"The AM and FM and digital transmission opened things up, but in a sense radio's not a cockroach because it has adapted to the internet," said Matt Mollgaard, who has documented the impact of digital technology on radio in New Zealand - and analysed radio and convergence through ten years of transformation

It's given us more rapid news and more and more music in the past 100 years, but is it a stretch to say broadcast radio has actually changed history? 

"The world now is all about information flows ," said Dr Hoar told Mediawatch

"Radio is one of the things that has made the world we live in," he said.